Losing sight

May Jeong – whose excellent investigation of the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre at Kunduz I’ve commended before – has a new, equally enthralling extended report over at the Intercept on the sole survivor of a US drone strike in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on 7 September 2013: ‘Losing Sight‘.

It’s a long, rich read, but there are two issues I want to highlight.

First, May captures the stark, bio-physical horror of an air strike with an economy and force I’ve rarely seen equalled.  As I’ve noted before (see here and here), many critical analyses emphasise the bio-convergences that animate what happens behind the digital screens of the kill-chain and say remarkably little about those that lie on the other side.  It’s all too easy to lose sight of the embodied nature of remote warfare, though in another powerful essay Joseph Pugliese argues that it’s often not possible to speak of the corporeal at all in the face of such catastrophic violence: ‘The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field’ ( ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20).

So here is May describing the strike on a pick-up truck in the early evening as it ground its way along a rough road through the Pech Valley; inside the cabin were the driver, three women and four young children, while seven men were crammed into the back along with sacks of flour they had bought to take back to their village.  There were a couple of miles from home, Gambir, when five missiles hit the truck in a 20-minute period.  Minutes later a second truck – which had been racing to catch up with the first – arrived close to the scene.  The driver (Mohibullah) scrambled up a small hill with a local villager:

[T]hey saw the husk of the pickup, strafed and lit up in flames. They hurried toward the fire.

When Mohibullah arrived at the blast site, he saw that of the 17 bags of flour he had helped load onto the truck, just two were intact. The rest had splayed open. There was a sick beauty to the scene — white powder over blood-red carnage.  These were men and women Mohibullah had grown up with, but he couldn’t recognize any of them. Their mangled body parts made it difficult to ascertain where one person ended and another began: spilled brains over severed limbs over ground flesh…

At first, it was just Mohibullah, another driver named Hamish Gul, and three villagers from Quroo who came to help. Most people in the area knew to stay away. The ghanghai [drones] often attacked again. Even so, the five of them worked at untangling the dead bodies — among them Aisha’s mother, father, grandmother, and little brother — and stacking them in neat rows atop the bed of Mohibullah’s truck.

Astonishingly, there was one survivor, but she too had been brutalised beyond recognition:

Mohibullah did not recognize the girl — her face had been “scrambled, she didn’t have her nose.” She still had both of her legs, but he wasn’t sure if her torso was connecting them to the rest of her body. It wasn’t until she asked in a frail voice — “Where is my father? Where is my mother?” — that he understood her to be his 4-year-old niece Aisha

A neighbor named Nasir held Aisha together for the drive back to Gambir. During the 2-mile journey, Aisha did not make a sound. Life seemed to be slipping away from her. Nasir assumed she would be buried. But when they arrived in Gambir, Aisha turned her head and asked for water. Her voice was so full of intent that they decided to rush her to a hospital in Asadabad.

Read those paragraphs again to see what Pugliese means.

Now the second issue starts to come into focus.  They reached Asadabad Provincial Hospital at 10 p.m., but the duty nurse could do little for Aisha:

Her stomach was missing, as were parts of her face and her left arm. He registered her into the hospital database, writing “acute abdominal injuries” next to her name, treated her with basic first aid, and sent her to the nearest hospital in Jalalabad, 57 miles away.

Aisha reached Jalalabad Public Health Hospital shortly after midnight, where her burns were dressed.  But here too there was little the surgeon could do; she had multiple head injuries, had lost one of her hands, and had major internal injuries.  A helicopter was called to take her to Kabul but it couldn’t land; a second helicopter arrived at midnight – 24 hours after she had reached Jalalabad – and ferried her to the French military hospital at Kabul Airport.

That hospital was a NATO Role 3 hospital, which had been run by the French since July 2009; by the summer of 2013 43 per cent of the procedures carried out by its staff had involved orthopaedic surgery.  Half of these were emergency surgeries; just 17 per cent of the patients were French military personnel and another 17 per cent were Afghan National Army or other ISAF soldiers,  while 47 per cent were Afghan (adult) civilians and 17 per cent were children.

Like other Role 3 hospitals, the facility was tasked with ‘damage-control’, for which it could call on three surgical teams rotation with a general surgeon, (abdominal, chest or vascular surgery) and an orthopedic surgeon as well as an ophthalmologist,  a neurosurgeon and an ENT or maxillofacial surgeon (I’ve taken these details from O. Barbier and others, ‘French surgical experience in the Role 3 Medical Treatment Facility of KaIA (Kabul International Airport…’, Orthopaedics and Traumataology: Surgery & Research 100 (6) (2014) 681-5; see also Christine Joubert and others, ‘Military neurosurgery in operation’, Acta Neurochir 158 (8) (2016) 1453-63).

While Aisha was being treated the hospital was visited by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  Here is May again:

There, Karzai was confronted with a girl who had lost her sight, her nose, her lower lip, the skin on her forehead, the skin on her torso, her left hand, and nine members of her family, including her grandmother, her uncles, her aunts, her cousin, her mother, her father, and her baby brother.

“I cannot describe what I saw there,” Rangin Spanta, who served as national security adviser under Karzai and accompanied him to the hospital that day, told me from his home in Kabul. We were sitting on a rattan set on his front porch. In telling this story, Spanta covered his face and wept. “Still I have my trauma.” Spanta had lost five family members in the war, but the sight of Aisha, a girl who had been reduced to a “piece of biological construct,” gave him “the feeling that this was a kind of a nightmare.” Spanta, who had seen the guts of suicide bombers splattered across his car window and has visited double, triple, and quadruple amputees, said Aisha was the “most shocking thing I’ve seen in this war.” Karzai asked the attending doctor why her face was covered. “Because there is nothing there” was the answer.

That a high proportion of patients the military hospital were Afghan civilians was by no means unusual for a Role 3 facility, but as I’ve noted before ISAF had strict Rules of Medical Eligibility.  Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ – both of which applied to Aisha – could be admitted to the international medical system.  But as soon as possible, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention, they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.

That system was – is – often rudimentary, which is why Aisha was passed from Asadabad to Jalalabad before reaching Kabul.  And returning someone in her post-operative condition to that system was obviously fraught with danger.  Here is Emily Mayhew in A Heavy Reckoning describing the dilemma for doctors at the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province:

Some of the most difficult decisions taken by the Deployed Medical Director related to local patients, Afghans civilians, their families and others. Locals made up the majority (probably as much as 80 per cent) of the patients cared for during the lifetime of the hospital. During the war there were no Afghan hospitals with the technology or capability to ventilate patients with severe chest wounds, therefore leaving Bastion meant death. So anyone intubated who could not be returned to Britain had to stay at Bastion until they could breathe unaided, which sometimes took days or weeks. They were discharged only when it was certain they could survive away from Bastion: probably in a local hospital that was under severe stress, and which could only provide medical care for two or three hours a day, where the rest of the time they would be looked after by their families.

I’ll return to this in a later post, because in some cases those local hospitals have been supplemented and even supplanted by more advanced medical facilities operated or supported by international NGOs like Emergency or MSF.

But what is extraordinary in Aisha’s case is that her pathway did not follow any of these routes.  Karzai had asked both the French and the Germans to help, but they deferred to the Americans who insisted that she be taken to the United States for further treatment.  ‘Twelve days after the strike,’ May reports, ‘Aisha was gone’: but nobody ever told her relatives what had happened to her.  Every attempt they made to find out was rebuffed.

Months later her uncle was informed that she was at Walter Reed hospital in Maryland; she had been sponsored by an American organisation, Solace for the Children.  According to its website:

Each Summer Solace for the Children Summer Medical Program brings children from areas affected by war to the United States so they may receive medical care unavailable to them in their country. We currently focus our efforts on children in Afghanistan. Each fall, applications are accepted for treatment. Our office in Afghanistan typically receives more than 50 applications they must review and qualify. Youth are qualified for services based on need and health condition. They are then placed with a host family for approximately 6 weeks while receiving the medical care they require. After care, youth return to Afghanistan with a better quality of life, brighter future and hope for peace.

While ‘there was no official relationship between the U.S. military and Solace,’ May was told by the charity’s director Patsy Wilson, ‘individual members of the military often reached out to Solace, which had been the case for Aisha.’

“We just get calls. We get calls from the military all over Afghanistan,” she said. She repeatedly deferred to the military, stating, “I am sure they don’t say we kidnap children.” Wilson also expressed doubts that Aisha had been injured in a drone strike, despite the claims of scores of villagers interviewed by The Intercept. “We do not necessarily believe Aisha was in a drone strike, but I know that is one of the stories,” she said. When pressed for details, she said, “I have been told not to discuss that,” adding, “We have no facts. There are no facts.”

Those last sentences are becoming all too familiar, but in this case ISAF not only acknowledged the ‘IM [international military] aerial attack’ but carried out its own investigation into the civilian casualties.  It has never been declassified.


In Lucy Suchman‘s marvellous essay on ‘Situational Awareness’ in remote operations she calls attention to what she calls bioconvergence:

A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.


In the wake of her work, there has been a cascade of essays insisting on the embodiment of air strikes carried out by Predators and Reapers – the bodies of the pilots, sensor operators and the legion of others who carry out these remote operations, and the bodies of their victims – and on what Lauren Wilcox calls the embodied and embodying nature of drone warfare (‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’ in Security dialogue, 2016; see also Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics and gender, 2015).  Lauren distinguishes between visual, algorithmic and affective modes of embodiment, and draws on the transcript of what has become a canonical air strike in Uruzgan province (Afghanistan) on 21 February 2010 to develop her claims (more on this in a moment).

And yet it’s a strange sort of embodying because within the targeting process these three registers also produce an estrangement and ultimately an effacement.  The corporeal is transformed into the calculative: a moving target, a data stream, an imminent threat.  If this is still a body at all, it’s radically different from ‘our’ bodies.  As I write these words, I realise I’m not convinced by the passage in George Brant‘s play Grounded in which the face of a little girl on the screen, the daughter of a ‘High Value Target’, becomes the face of the Predator pilot’s own daughter.  For a digital Orientalism is at work through those modes of embodiment that interpellates those watching as spectators of what Edward Said once called ‘a living tableau of queerness’ that in so many cases will become a dead tableau of bodies which remain irredeemably Other.

There is a history to the embodiment of air strikes, as my image above shows.  Aerial violence in all its different guises has almost invariably involved an asymmetric effacement.  The lives – and the bodies – of those who flew the first bombing missions over the Western Front in the First World War; the young men who sacrificed their lives during the Combined Bomber Offensive in the Second World War; and even the tribulations and traumas encountered by the men and women conducting remote operations over Afghanistan and elsewhere have all been documented in fact and in fiction.

And yet, while others – notably social historians, investigative journalists and artists – have sought to bring into view the lives shattered by aerial violence, its administration has long mobilised an affective distance between bomber and bombed.  As I showed in ‘Doors into nowhere’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), the bodies of those crouching beneath the bombs are transformed into abstract co-ordinates, coloured lights and target boxes.  Here is Charles Lindbergh talking about the air war in the Pacific in May 1944:

You press a button and death flies down.  One second the bomb is hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control.  The next it is hurtling through the air, and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done…  How can there be writhing, mangled bodies?  How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles?  It is like listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth.  It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.

Or Frank Musgrave, a navigator with RAF Bomber Command, writing about missions over Germany that same year:

These German cities were simply coordinates on a map of Europe, the first relatively near, involving around six hours of flying, the second depressingly distant, involving some eight or nine hours of flying. Both sets of coordinates were at the centre of areas shaded deep red on our maps to indicate heavy defences. For me ‘Dortmund’ and ‘Leipzig’ had no further substance or concrete reality.

Harold Nash, another navigator:

It was black, and then suddenly in the distance you saw lights on the floor, the fires burning.  As you drew near, they looked like sparkling diamonds on a black satin background… [T]hey weren’t people to me, just the target.  It’s the distance and the blindness which enabled you to do these things.


One last example – Peter Johnson, a Group Captain who served with distinction with RAF Bomber Command:

Targets were now marked by the Pathfinder Force … and these instructions, to bomb a marker, introduced a curiously impersonal factor into the act of dropping huge quantities of bombs.  I came to realize that crews were simply bored by a lot of information about the target.  What concerned them were the details of route and navigation, which colour Target Indicator they were to bomb… In the glare of searchlights, with the continual winking of anti-aircraft shells, the occasional thud when one came close and left its vile smell, what we had to do was search for coloured lights dropped by our own people, aim our bombs at them and get away.

The airspace through which the bomber stream flew was a viscerally biophysical realm, in which the crews’ bodies registered the noise of the engines, the shifts in course and elevation, the sound and stink of the flak, the abrupt lift of the aircraft once the bombs were released.  They were also acutely aware of their own bodies: fingers numbed by the freezing cold, faces encased in rubbery oxygen masks, and frantic fumblings over the Elsan.  But the physicality of the space far below them was reduced to the optical play of distant lights and flames, and the crushed, asphyxiated and broken bodies appeared – if they appeared at all – only in their nightmares.

These apprehensions were threaded into what I’ve called a ‘moral economy of bombing’ that sought (in different ways and at different times) to legitimise aerial violence by lionising its agents and marginalising its victims (see here: scroll down).

But remote operations threaten to transform this calculus.  Those who control Predators and Reapers sit at consoles in air-conditioned containers, which denies them the physical sensations of flight.  Yet in one, as it happens acutely optical sense they are much closer to the devastation they cause: eighteen inches away, they usually say, the distance from eye to screen.  And the strikes they execute are typically against individuals or small groups of people (rather than objects or areas), and they rely on full-motion video feeds that show the situation both before and after in detail (however imperfectly).  Faced with this highly conditional intimacy, as Lauren shows, the bodies that appear in the cross-hairs are produced as killable bodies through a process of somatic abstraction – leaving the fleshy body behind – that is abruptly reversed once the missile is released.

Thus in the coda to the original version of ‘Dirty Dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab) – and which I’ve since excised from what was a very long essay; reworked, it will appear in a revised form as ‘The territory of the screen’ – I described how

intelligence agencies produce and reproduce the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] as a data field that is systematically mined to expose seams of information and selectively sown with explosives to be rematerialised as a killing field. The screens on which and through which the strikes are animated are mediations in an extended sequence in which bodies moving into, through and out from the FATA are tracked and turned into targets in a process that Ian Hacking describes more generally as ‘making people up’: except that in this scenario the targets are not so much ‘people’ as digital traces. The scattered actions and interactions of individuals are registered by remote sensors, removed from the fleshiness of human bodies and reassembled as what Grégoire Chamayou calls ‘schematic bodies’. They are given codenames (‘Objective x’) and index numbers, they are tracked on screens and their danse macabre is plotted on time-space grids and followed by drones. But as soon as the Hellfire missiles are released the transformations that have produced the target over the preceding weeks and months cascade back into the human body: in an instant virtuality becomes corporeality and traces turn into remains.

There are two difficulties in operationalising that last sentence.  One is bound up with evidence – and in particular with reading what Oliver Kearns calls the ‘residue’ of covert strikes (see his ‘Secrecy and absence in the residue of covert drone strikes’, Political Geography, 2016) – and the other is one that I want to address here.

To do so, let me turn from the FATA to Yemen.  The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights in Sa’ana has released a short documentary, Waiting for Justice, that details the effects of a US drone strike on civilians:

If the embedded version doesn’t work, you can find it on YouTube.

At 6 a.m. on 19 April 2014 a group of men – mainly construction workers, plus one young father hitching a ride to catch a bus into Saudi Arabia –  set off from from their villages in al-Sawma’ah to drive to al-Baidha city; 20 to 30 metres behind their Toyota Hilux, it turned out, was a Toyota Land Cruiser carrying suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.




That car was being tracked by a drone: it fired a Hellfire missile, striking the car and killing the occupants, and shrapnel hit the Hilux.  Some of the civilians sought refuge in an abandoned water canal, when the drone (or its companion) returned for a second strike.

Four of them were killed – Sanad Hussein Nasser al-Khushum (30), Yasser Abed Rabbo al-Azzani (18), Ahmed Saleh Abu Bakr (65) and Abdullah Nasser Abu Bakr al-Khushu – and five were injured: the driver, Nasser Mohammed Nasser (35), Abdulrahman Hussein al-Khushum (22), Najib Hassan Nayef (35 years), Salem Nasser al-Khushum (40) and Bassam Ahmed Salem Breim (20).


The film draws on Death by Drone: civilian harm caused by US targeted killing in Yemen, a collaborative investigation carried out by the Open Society Justice Initiative in the United States and Mwatana in Yemen into nine drone strikes: one of them (see pp. 42-48) is the basis of the documentary; the strike is also detailed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as YEM159 here.

That report, together with the interview and reconstruction for the documentary, have much to tell us about witnesses and residues.

In addition the father of one of the victims, describing the strike in the film, says ‘They slaughter them like sheep‘…


… and, as Joe Pugliese shows in a remarkable new essay, that phrase contains a violent, visceral truth.

Joe describes a number of other US strikes in Yemen – by cruise missiles and by Hellfire missiles fired from drones (on which see here; scroll down) – in which survivors and rescuers confronted a horrific aftermath in which the incinerated flesh of dead animals and the flesh of dead human beings became indistinguishable.  This is a radically different, post-strike bioconvergence that Joe calls a geobiomorphology:

The bodies of humans and animals are here compelled to enflesh the world through the violence of war in a brutally literal manner: the dismembered and melted flesh becomes the ‘tissue of things’ as it geobiomorphologically enfolds the contours of trees and rocks. What we witness in this scene of carnage is the transliteration of metadata algorithms to flesh. The abstracting and decorporealising operations of metadata ‘without content’ are, in these contexts of militarised slaughter of humans and animals, geobiomorphologically realised and grounded in the trammelled lands of the Global South.

Indeed, he’s adamant that it is no longer possible to speak of the corporeal in the presence of such ineffable horror:

One can no longer talk of corporeality here. Post the blast of a drone Hellfire missile, the corpora of animals-humans are rendered into shredded carnality. In other words, operative here is the dehiscence of the body through the violence of an explosive centripetality that disseminates flesh. The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field.

By these means, he concludes,

the subjects of the Global South [are rendered] as non-human animals captivated in their lawlessness and inhuman savagery and deficient in everything that defines the human-rights-bearing subject. In contradistinction to the individuating singularity of the Western subject as named person, they embody the anonymous genericity of the animal and the seriality of the undifferentiated and fungible carcass. As subjects incapable of embodying the figure of “the human,” they are animals who, when killed by drone attacks, do not die but only come to an end.

You can read the essay, ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20.

It’s an arresting, truly shocking argument.  You might protest that the incidents described in the essay are about ordnance not platform – that a cruise missile fired from a ship or a Hellfire missile fired from an attack helicopter would produce the same effects.  And so they have.  But Joe’s point is that where Predators and Reapers are used to execute targeted killings they rely on the extraction of metadata and its algorithmic manipulation to transform individualised, embodied life into a stream of data – a process that many of us have sought to recover – but that in the very moment of execution those transformations are not simply, suddenly reversed but displaced into a generic flesh.  (And there is, I think, a clear implication that those displacements are pre-figured in the original de-corporealisation – the somatic abstraction – of the target).

Joe’s discussion is clearly not intended to be limited to those (literal) instances where animals are caught up in a strike; it is, instead, a sort of limit-argument designed to disclose the bio-racialisation of targeted killing in the global South.  It reappears time and time again.  Here is a sensor operator, a woman nicknamed “Sparkle”,  describing the aftermath of a strike in Afghanistan conducted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada:

Sparkle could see a bunch of hot spots all over the ground, which were likely body parts. The target was dead, but that isn’t always the case. The Hellfire missile only has 12 pounds of explosives, so making sure the target is in the “frag pattern,” hit by shrapnel, is key.

As the other Reaper flew home to refuel and rearm, Spade stayed above the target, watching as villagers ran to the smoldering motorbike. Soon a truck arrived. Spade and Sparkle watched as they picked up the target’s blasted body.

“It’s just a dead body,” Sparkle said. “I grew up elbows deep in dead deer. We do what we needed to do. He’s dead. Now we’re going to watch him get buried.”

The passage I’ve emphasised repeats the imaginary described by the strike survivor in Yemen – but from the other side of the screen.

Seen thus, Joe’s argument speaks directly to the anguished question asked by one of the survivors of the Uruzgan killings in Afghanistan:


How can you not identify us? (The question – and the still above – are taken from the reconstruction in the documentary National Bird).  We might add: How do you identify us?  These twin questions intersect with a vital argument developed by Christiane Wilke, who is deeply concerned that civilians now ‘have to establish, perform and confirm their civilianhood by establishing and maintaining legible patterns of everyday life, by conforming to gendered and racialized expectations of mobility, and by not ever being out of place, out of time’ (see her chapter, ‘The optics of war’, in Sheryl Hamilton, Diana Majury, Dawn Moore, Neil Sargent and Christiane Wilke, eds., Sensing Law [2017] pp 257-79: 278).  As she wrote to me:

I’m really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail.

Asymmetry again.  Actors required to perform their civilian-ness in a play they haven’t devised before an audience they can’t see – and which all too readily misunderstands the plot.  And if they fail they become killable bodies.

But embodying does not end there; its terminus is the apprehension of injured and dead bodies.  So let me add two riders to the arguments developed by Lauren and Joe.  I’ll do so by returning to the Uruzgan strike.

I should say at once that this is a complicated case (see my previous discussions here and here).  In the early morning three vehicles moving down dusty roads and tracks were monitored for several hours by a Predator controlled by a flight crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada; to the south a detachment of US Special Forces was conducting a search operation around the village of Khod, supported by Afghan troops and police; and when the Ground Force Commander determined that this was a ‘convoy’ of Taliban that posed a threat to his men he called in an air strike executed by two OH-58 attack helicopters that killed 15 or 16 people and wounded a dozen others.  All of the victims were civilians.  This was not a targeted killing, and there is little sign of the harvesting of metadata or the mobilisation of algorithms – though there was some unsubstantiated  talk of the possible presence of a ‘High-Value Individual’ in one of the vehicles, referred to both by name and by the codename assigned to him on the Joint Prioritised Effects List, and while the evidence for this seems to have been largely derived from chatter on short-wave radios picked up by the Special Forces on the ground it is possible that a forward-deployed NASA team at Bagram was also involved in communications intercepts.  Still, there was no geo-locational fixing, no clear link between these radio communications and the three vehicles, and ultimately it was the visual construction of their movement and behaviour as a ‘hostile’ pattern of life that provoked what was, in effect, a signature strike.  But this was not conventional Close Air Support either: the Ground Force Commander declared first a precautionary ‘Air TIC’ (Troops In Contact) so that strike aircraft could be ready on station to come to his defence – according to the investigation report, this created ‘a false sense of urgency’ –  and then ‘Troops in Contact’.  Yet when the attack helicopters fired their missiles no engagement had taken place and the vehicles were moving away from Khod (indeed, they were further away than when they were first observed).  This was (mis)read as ‘tactical maneuvering’.

My first rider is that the process is not invariably the coldly, calculating sequence conjured by the emphasis on metadata and algorithms – what Dan McQuillan calls ‘algorithmic seeing’ – or the shrug-your-shouders attitude of Sparkle.  This is why the affective is so important, but it is multidimensional.  I doubt that it is only in films like Good Kill (below) or Eye in the Sky that pilots and sensor operators are uncomfortable, even upset at what they do.  Not all sensor operators are Brandon Bryant – but they aren’t all Sparkle either.


All commentaries on the Uruzgan strike – including my own – draw attention to how the pilot, sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator watching the three vehicles from thousands of miles away were predisposed to interpret every action as hostile.  The crew was neither dispassionate nor detached; on the contrary, they were eager to move in for the kill.  At least some of those in the skies above Uruzgan had a similar view.  The lead pilot of the two attack helicopters that carried out the strike was clearly invested in treating the occupants of the vehicles as killable bodies.  He had worked with the Special Operations detachment before, knew them very well, and – like the pilot of the Predator – believed they were ‘about to get rolled up and I wanted to go and help them out… [They] were about to get a whole lot of guys in their face.’

Immediately after the strike the Predator crew convinced themselves that the bodies were all men (‘military-aged males’):

08:53 (Safety Observer): Are they wearing burqas?

08:53 (Sensor): That’s what it looks like.

08:53 (Pilot): They were all PIDed as males, though. No females in the group.

08:53 (Sensor): That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t … if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.

Reassured, the crew relaxed and their conversation became more disparaging:

09:02 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC)): There’s one guy sitting down.

09:02 (Sensor): What you playing with? (Talking to individual on ground.)

09:02 (MC): His bone.


09:04 (Sensor): Yeah, see there’s…that guy just sat up.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yeah.

09:04 (Sensor): So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.

09:04 (Safety Observer): Yep.

09:04 (MC): I think the most lumps are on the lead vehicle because everybody got… the Hellfire got…


09:06 (MC): Is that two? One guy’s tending the other guy?

09:06 (Safety Observer): Looks like it.

09:06 (Sensor): Looks like it, yeah.

09:06 (MC): Self‐Aid Buddy Care to the rescue.

09:06 (Safety Observer): I forget, how do you treat a sucking gut wound?

09:06 (Sensor): Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. That’ll work.

The corporeality of the victims flickers into view in these exchanges, but in a flippantly anatomical register (‘playing with … his bone’; ‘Don’t push it back in.  Wrap it in a towel..’).

But the helicopter pilots reported the possible presence of women, identified only by their brightly coloured dresses, and soon after (at 09:10) the Mission Intelligence Coordinator said he saw ‘Women and children’, which was confirmed by the screeners.  The earlier certainty, the desire to kill, gave way to uncertainty, disquiet.

These were not the only eyes in the sky and the sequence was not closed around them.   Others watching the video feed – the analysts and screeners at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the staff at the Special Operations Task Force Operations Centre in Kandahar – read the imagery more circumspectly.  Many of them were unconvinced that these were killable bodies – when the shift changed in the Operations Centre the Day Battle Captain called in a military lawyer for advice, and the staff agreed to call in another helicopter team to force the vehicles to stop and determine their status and purpose – and many of them were clearly taken aback by the strike.   Those military observers who were most affected by the strike were the troops on the ground.  The commander who had cleared the attack helicopters to engage was ferried to the scene to conduct a ‘Sensitive Site Exploitation’.  What he found, he testified, was ‘horrific’: ‘I was upset physically and emotionally’.

My second rider is that war provides – and also provokes – multiple apprehensions of the injured or dead body.  They are not limited to the corpo-reality of a human being and its displacement and dismemberment into what Joe calls ‘carcass’.  In the Uruzgan case the process of embodying did not end with the strike and the continued racialization and gendering of its victims by the crew of the Predator described by Lauren.

The Sensitive Site Exploitation – the term was rescinded in June 2010; the US Army now prefers simply  ‘site exploitation‘, referring to the systematic search for and collection of ‘information, material, and persons from a designated location and analyzing them to answer information requirements, facilitate subsequent operations, or support criminal prosecution’ – was first and foremost a forensic exercise.  Even in death, the bodies were suspicious bodies.  A priority was to establish a security perimeter and conduct a search of the site.  The troops were looking for survivors but they were also searching for weapons, for evidence that those killed were insurgents and for any intelligence that could be gleaned from their remains and their possessions.  This mattered: the basis for the attack had been the prior identification of weapons from the Predator’s video feed and a (highly suspect) inference of hostile intent.   But it took three and a half hours for the team to arrive at the engagement site by helicopter, and a naval expert on IEDs and unexploded ordnance who was part of the Special Forces detachment was immediately convinced that the site had been ‘tampered with’.  The bodies had been moved, presumably by people from a nearby village who had come to help:

The bodies had been lined up and had been covered… somebody else was on the scene prior to us … The scene was contaminated [sic] before we got there.

He explained to MG Timothy McHale, who lead the subsequent inquiry, what he meant:


The Ground Force Commander reported that he ‘wouldn’t take photos of the KIA [Killed in Action] – but of the strike’, yet it proved impossible to maintain a clinical distinction between them (see the right hand panel below; he also reported finding bodies still trapped in and under the vehicles).


His photographs of the three vehicles were annotated by the investigation team to show points of impact, but the bodies of some of the dead were photographed too.  These still photographs presumably also had evidentiary value – though unlike conventional crime scene imagery they were not, so far I can tell, subject to any rigorous analysis.  In any case: what evidentiary value?  Or,  less obliquely, whose crime?  Was the disposition of the bodies intended to confirm they had been moved, the scene ‘contaminated’ – the investigator’s comments on the photograph note ‘Bodies from Vehicle Two did not match blast pattern’ – so that any traces of insurgent involvement could have been erased?  (There is another story here, because the investigation uncovered evidence that staff in the Operations Centres refused to accept the first reports of civilian casualties, and there is a strong suspicion that initial storyboards were manipulated to conceal that fact).  Or do the shattered corpses driven into metal and rock silently confirm the scale of the incident and the seriousness of any violation of the laws of war and the rules of engagement?


The Ground Force Commander also had his medics treat the surviving casualties, and called in a 9-line request (‘urgent one priority’) for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).  Military helicopters took the injured to US and Dutch military hospitals at Tarin Kowt, and en route they became the objects of a biomedical gaze that rendered their bodies as a series of visible wounds and vital signs that were distributed among the boxes of standard MEDEVAC report forms:


At that stage none of the injured was identified by name (see the first box on the top left); six of the cases – as they had become – were recorded as having been injured by ‘friendly’ forces, but five of them mark ‘wounded by’ as ‘unknown’.  Once in hospital they were identified, and the investigation team later visited them and questioned them about the incident and their injuries (which they photographed).

These photographs and forms are dispassionate abstractions of mutilated and pain-bearing bodies, but it would be wrong to conclude from these framings that those producing them – the troops on the ground, the medics and EMTs – were not affected by what they saw.

And it would also be wrong to conclude that military bodies are immune from these framings.  Most obviously, these are standard forms used for all MEDEVAC casualties, civilian or military, and all patients are routinely reduced to an object-space (even as they also remain so much more than that: there are multiple, co-existing apprehensions of the human body).

k9963Yet I have in mind something more unsettling.  Ken MacLeish reminds us that

for the soldier, there is no neat division between what gore might mean for a perpetrator and what it might mean for a victim, because he is both at once. He is stuck in the middle of this relation, because this relation is the empty, undetermined center of the play of sovereign violence: sometimes the terror is meant for the soldier, sometimes he is merely an incidental witness to it, and sometimes he, or his side, is the one responsible for it.

If there is no neat division there is no neat symmetry either; not only is there a spectacular difference between the vulnerability of pilots and sensor operators in the continental United States and their troops on the ground – a distance which I’ve argued intensifies the desire of some remote crews to strike whenever troops are in danger –  but there can also be a substantial difference between the treatment of fallen friends and foe: occasional differences in the respect accorded to dead bodies and systematic differences in the (long-term) care of injured ones.

But let’s stay with Ken.  He continues:

Soldiers say that a body that has been blown up looks like spaghetti. I heard this again and again – the word conjures texture, sheen, and abject, undifferentiated mass, forms that clump into knots or collapse into loose bits.

He wonders where this comes from:

Does it domesticate the violence and loss? Is it a critique? Gallows humor? Is it a reminder, perhaps, that you are ultimately nothing more than the dumb matter that you eat, made whole and held together only by changeable circumstance? Despite all the armor, the body is open to a hostile world and can collapse into bits in the blink of an eye, at the speed of radio waves, electrons, pressure plate springs, and hot metal. The pasta and red sauce are reminders that nothing is normal and everything has become possible. Some body—one’s own body—has been placed in a position where it is allowed to die. More than this, though, it has been made into a thing…

One soldier described recovering his friend’s body after his tank had been hit by an IED:

… everything above his knees was turned into fucking spaghetti. Whatever was left, it popped the top hatch, where the driver sits, it popped it off and it spewed whatever was left of him all over the front slope. And I don’t know if you know … not too many people get to see a body like that, and it, and it…

We went up there, and I can remember climbing up on the slope, and we were trying to get everybody out, ’cause the tank was on fire and it was smoking. And I kept slipping on – I didn’t know what I was slipping on, ’cause it was all over me, it was real slippery. And we were trying to get the hatch open, to try to get Chris out. My gunner, he reached in, reached in and grabbed, and he pulled hisself back. And he was like, “Holy shit!” I mean, “Holy shit,” that was all he could say. And he had cut his hand. Well, what he cut his hand on was the spinal cord. The spine had poked through his hand and cut his hand on it, ’cause there was pieces of it left in there. And we were trying to get up, and I reached down and pushed my hand down to get up, and I reached up and looked up, and his goddamn eyeball was sitting in my hand. It had splattered all up underneath the turret. It was all over me, it was all over everybody, trying to get him out of there…

I think Ken’s commentary on this passage provides another, compelling perspective on the horror so deeply embedded in Joe’s essay:

There is nothing comic or subversive here; only horror. Even in the middle of the event, it’s insensible, unspeakable: and it, and it …, I didn’t know what I was slipping on. The person is still there, and you have to “get him out of there,” but he’s everywhere and he’s gone at the same time. The whole is gone, and the parts – the eye, the spine, and everything else – aren’t where they should be. A person reduced to a thing: it was slippery, it was all over, that was what we sent home. He wasn’t simply killed; he was literally destroyed. Through a grisly physics, there was somehow less of him than there had been before, transformed from person into dumb and impersonal matter.

‘Gore,’ he concludes, ‘is about the horror of a person being replaced by stuff that just a moment ago was a person.’  Explosive violence ruptures the integrity of the contained body – splattered over rocks or metal surfaces in a catastrophic bioconvergence.

I hope it will be obvious that none of this is intended to substitute any sort of equivalence for the asymmetries that I have emphasised throughout this commentary.  I hope, too, that I’ve provided a provisional supplement to some of the current work on metadata, algorithms and aerial violence – hence my title.  As Linda McDowell remarked an age ago – in Working Bodies (pp. 223-4) – the term ‘meatspace’ is offensive in all sorts of ways (its origins lie in cyberpunk where it connoted the opposite to cyberspace, but I concede the opposition is too raw).  Still, it is surely important to recover the ways in which later modern war and militarised violence (even in its digital incarnations) is indeed obdurately, viscerally offensive – for all of the attempts to efface what Huw Lemmey once called its ‘devastation in meatspace‘.

Game of Drones


Joe Pugliese has sent me a copy of his absorbing new essay, ‘Drone casino mimesis: telewarfare and civil militarization‘, which appears in Australia’s Journal of sociology (2016) (online early).  Here’s the abstract:

This article stages an examination of the complex imbrication of contemporary civil society with war and militarized violence. I ground my investigation in the context of the increasing cooption of civil sites, practices and technologies by the United States military in order to facilitate their conduct of war and the manner in which drone warfare has now been seamlessly accommodated within major metropolitan cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada. In the context of the article, I coin and deploy the term civil militarization. Civil militarization articulates the colonizing of civilian sites, practices and technologies by the military; it names the conversion of such civilian technologies as video games and mobile phones into technologies of war; and it addresses the now quasi-seamless flow that telewarfare enables between military sites and the larger suburban grid and practices of everyday life. In examining drone kills in the context of Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, I bring into focus a new military configuration that I term ‘drone casino mimesis’.

I’m particularly interested in what Joe has to say about what he calls the ‘casino logic and faming mimesis’ of ‘the drone habitus’.  Most readers will know that ‘Nellis’ (more specifically, Creech Air Force Base, formerly Indian Springs), for long the epicentre of the US Air Force’s remote operations, is a short drive from Las Vegas – and those who have seen Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is Best will remember the artful way in which it loops between the two.


Two passages from Joe’s essay have set me thinking.  First Joe moves far beyond the usual (often facile) comparison between the video displays in the Ground Control Station and video games to get at the algorithms and probabilities that animate them:

‘…there are mimetic relations of exchange between Las Vegas’s and Nellis’s gaming consoles, screens and cubicles.


‘Iconographically and infrastructurally, casino gaming and drone technologies stand as mirror images of each other. My argument, however, is not that both these practices and technologies merely ‘reflect’ each other; rather, I argue that gaming practices and technologies effectively work to constitute and inflect drone practices and technologies on a number of levels. Casino drone mimesis identifies, in new materialist terms, the agentic role of casino and gaming technologies precisely as ‘actors’ (Latour, 2004: 226) in the shaping and mutating of both the technologies and conduct of war. Situated within a new materialist schema, I contend that the mounting toll of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is not only a result of human failure or error – for example, the misreading of drone video feed, the miscalculation of targets and so on. Rather, civilian drone kills must be seen as an in-built effect of military technologies that are underpinned by both the morphology (gaming consoles, video screens and joysticks) and the algorithmic infrastructure of gaming – with its foundational dependence on ‘good approximation’ ratios and probability computation.’

And then this second passage where Joe develops what he calls ‘the “bets” and “gambles” on civilian life’:

‘[Bugsplat’ constitutes a] militarized colour-coding system that critically determines the kill value of the target. In the words of one former US intelligence official:

You say something like ‘Show me the Bugsplat.’ That’s what we call the probability of a kill estimate when we are doing this final math before the ‘Go go go’ decision. You would actually get a picture of a compound, and there will be something on it that looks like a bugsplat actually with red, yellow, and green: with red being anybody in that spot is dead, yellow stands a chance of being wounded; green we expect no harm to come to individuals where there is green. (Quoted in Woods, 2015: 150)

Described here is a mélange of paintball and video gaming techniques that is underpinned, in turn, by the probability stakes of casino gaming: as the same drone official concludes, ‘when all those conditions have been met, you may give the order to go ahead and spend the money’ (quoted in Woods, 2015: 150). In the world of drone casino mimesis, when all those gaming conditions have been met, you spend the money, fire your missiles and hope to make a killing. In the parlance of drone operators, if you hit and kill the person you intended to kill ‘that person is called a “jackpot”’ (Begley, 2015: 7). Evidenced here is the manner in which the lexicon of casino gaming is now clearly constitutive of the practices of drone kills. In the world of drone casino mimesis, the gambling stakes are high. ‘The position I took,’ says a drone screener, ‘is that every call I make is a gamble, and I’m betting on their life’ (quoted in Fielding-Smith and Black, 2015).

There is much more to Joe’s essay than this, but these passages add considerably to my own discussion of the US targeted killing program in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in ‘Dirty dancing’.  You can find the whole essay under the DOWNLOADS tab, but this is the paragraph I have in mind (part of an extended discussion of the ‘technicity’ of the US targeted killing program and its reliance on kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds):

The kill list embedded in the [disposition] matrix has turned out to be infinitely extendable, more like a revolving door than a rolodex, so much so that at one point an exasperated General Kayani demanded that Admiral Mullen explain how, after hundreds of drone strikes, ‘the United States [could] possibly still be working its way through a “top 20” list?’  The answer lies not only in the remarkable capacity of al Qaeda and the Taliban to regenerate: the endless expansion of the list is written into the constitution of the database and the algorithms from which it emerges. The database accumulates information from multiple agencies, but for targets in the FATA the primary sources are ground intelligence from agents and informants, signals intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA), and surveillance imagery from the US Air Force. Algorithms are then used to search the database to produce correlations, coincidences and connections that serve to identify suspects, confirm their guilt and anticipate their future actions. Jutta Weber explains that the process follows ‘a logic of eliminating every possible danger’:

‘[T]he database is the perfect tool for pre-emptive security measures because it has no need of the logic of cause and effect. It widens the search space and provides endless patterns of possibilistic networks.’

Although she suggests that the growth of ‘big data’ and the transition from hierarchical to relational and now post-relational databases has marginalised earlier narrative forms, these reappear as soon as suspects have been conjured from the database. The case for including – killing – each individual on the list is exported from its digital target folder to a summary Powerpoint slide called a ‘baseball card’ that converts into a ‘storyboard’ after each mission. Every file is vetted by the CIA’s lawyers and General Counsel, and by deputies at the National Security Council, and all ‘complex cases’ have to be approved by the President. Herein lies the real magic of the system. ‘To make the increasingly powerful non-human agency of algorithms and database systems invisible,’ Weber writes, ‘the symbolic power of the sovereign is emphasised: on “Terror Tuesdays” it (appears that it) is only the sovereign who decides about life and death.’ But this is an optical illusion. As Louise Amoore argues more generally, ‘the sovereign strike is always something more, something in excess of a single flash of decision’ and emerges instead from a constellation of prior practices and projected calculations.

The individuation of warfare?

chamayou-manhuntsBefore I resume my reading of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone, I want to approach his thesis from a different direction. As I’ve noted, much of his argument turns on the reduction of later modern war to ‘man-hunting’: the profoundly asymmetric pursuit of individuals by activating the hunter-killer capacities of the Predator or the Reaper in a new form of networked (para)military violence. He describes this as a ‘state doctrine of non-conventional violence’ that combines elements of military and police operations without fully corresponding to either: ‘hybrid operations, monstrous offspring [enfants terribles] of the police and the military, of war and peace’.

These new modalities increase the asymmetry of war – to the point where it no longer looks like or perhaps even qualifies as war – because they preclude what Joseph Pugliese describes as ‘“a general system of exchange” [the reference is to Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics] between the hunter-killer apparatus ‘and its anonymous and unsuspecting victims, who have neither a right of reply nor recourse to judicial procedure.’

Pugliese insists that drones materialise what he calls a ‘prosthetics of law’, and the work of jurists and other legal scholars provides a revealing window into the constitution of later modern war and what, following Michael Smith, I want to call its geo-legal armature. To date, much of this discussion has concerned the reach of international law – the jurisdiction of international law within (Afghanistan) and beyond (Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) formal zones of conflict – and the legal manoeuvres deployed by the United States to sanction its use of deadly force in ‘self-defence’ that violates the sovereignty of other states (which includes both international law and domestic protocols like the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and various executive orders issued after 9/11) . These matters are immensely consequential, and bear directly on what Frédéric Mégret callsthe deconstruction of the battlefield’.

HIPPLER Bombing the PeopleIt’s important to understand that the ‘battlefield’ is more than a physical space; it’s also a normative space – the site of ‘exceptional norms’ within whose boundaries it is permissible to kill other human beings (subject to particular codes, rules and laws). Its deconstruction is not a new process. Modern military violence has rarely been confined to a champ de mars insulated from the supposedly safe spaces of civilian life. Long-range strategic bombing radically re-wrote the geography of war. This was already clear by the end of the First World War, and in 1921 Giulio Douhet could already confidently declare that

‘By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of guns, but can be felt directly for hundreds and hundreds of miles… The battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.’

The laboratory for these experimental geographies before the Second World War was Europe’s colonial (dis)possessions – so-called ‘air control’ in North Africa, the Middle East and along the North-West Frontier – but colonial wars had long involved ground campaigns fought with little or no distinction between combatants and civilians.

What does seem to be novel about more recent deconstructions, so Mégret argues, is ‘a deliberate attempt to manipulate what constitutes the battlefield and to transcend it in ways that liberate rather than constrain violence.’

9781844676477 Least of All Possible EvilsThis should not surprise us. Law is not a deus ex machina that presides over war as impartial tribune. Law, Michel Foucault reminds us, ‘is born of real battles, victories, massacres and conquests’; law ‘is born in burning towns and ravaged fields.’ Today so-called ‘operational law’ has incorporated military lawyers into the kill-chain, moving them closer to the tip of the spear, but law also moves in the rear of military violence: in Eyal Weizman’s phrase, ‘violence legislates.’ In the case that most concerns him, that of the Israel Defense Force, military lawyers work in the grey zone between ‘the black’ (forbidden) and ‘the white’ (permitted) and actively seek to turn the grey into the white: to use military violence to extend the permissive envelope of the law.

The liber(alis)ation of violence that Mégret identifies transforms the very meaning of war. In conventional wars combatants are authorised to kill on the basis of what Paul Kahn calls their corporate identity:

‘…the combatant has about him something of the quality of the sacred. His acts are not entirely his own….

‘The combatant is not individually responsible for his actions because those acts are no more his than ours…. [W]arfare is a conflict between corporate subjects, inaccessible to ordinary ideas of individual responsibility, whether of soldier or commander. The moral accounting for war [is] the suffering of the nation itself – not a subsequent legal response to individual actors.’

The exception, Kahn continues, which also marks the boundary of corporate agency, is a war crime, which is ‘not attributable to the sovereign body, but only to the individual.’ Within that boundary, however, the enemy can be killed no matter what s/he is doing (apart from surrendering). There is no legal difference between killing a general and killing his driver, between firing a missile at a battery that is locking on to your aircraft and dropping a bomb on a barracks at night. ‘The enemy is always faceless,’ Kahn explains, ‘because we do not care about his personal history any more than we care about his hopes for the future.’ Combatants are vulnerable to violence not only because they are its vectors but also because they are enrolled in the apparatus that authorizes it: they are killed not as individuals but as the corporate bearers of a contingent (because temporary) enmity.

It is precisely this model that contemporary military violence now challenges through the prosthetics of law embodied and embedded in drone warfare – and this, Kahn insists, has transformed the political imaginary of warfare (You can find his full argument here: ‘Imagining warfare’, European journal of international law 24 (1) (2013) 199-216).

Warheads on foreheads

In a parallel argument, Samuel Issacharoff and Richard Pildes describe this development as the individuation of military force, driven in part by the affordances and dispositions of drone warfare which makes it possible to put ‘warheads on foreheads.’  Targets are no longer whole areas of cities – like Cologne or Hamburg in the Second World War – or extensive target boxes like those ravaged by B-52 ‘Arc Light’ strikes over the rainforest of Vietnam.  The targets are individuals and, since the United States claims the right to target them wherever they are found, this partly explains the dispersed geography of what I’ve called ‘the everywhere war’.   What interests Issacharoff and Pildes, like Kahn, is not so much the technology that makes this possible as the apparatus that makes it permissible.

Their presentation wavers uncertainly between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, and they also write more generally of ‘the new face of warfare’ and the use of ‘military force’, so that (as now happens in practice) the distinctions between the US military and the CIA become blurred.  But their core argument is that military force is now directed against specific individuals on the basis of determinate acts that they have committed or, by pre-emptive extension, are likely to commit.  In Kahn’s terms, this inaugurates a radically different (though in his eyes, highly unstable) political subjectivity through which the enemy is transformed into the criminal.  ‘The criminal is always an individual,’ Kahn explains; ‘the enemy is not.’

For Issacharoff and Pildes this new state of affairs requires an ‘adjudicative apparatus’ to positively identify, detect and prosecute the individual-as-target, which drives the military system ever closer to the judicial system:

 ‘As the fundamental transformation in the practice of the uses of military force moves, even implicitly, toward an individuated model of responsibility, military force inevitably begins to look justified in similar terms to the uses of punishment in the criminal justice system. That is, to the extent that someone can be targeted for the use of military force (capture, detention, killing) only because of the precise, specific acts in which he or she as an individual participated, military force now begins to look more and more like an implicit “adjudication” of individual responsibility.’

They suggest that this makes it inevitable that the boundaries between the military system and the judicial system ‘will become more permeable’ – a confirmation of the active constitution of the war/police assemblage (on which see Colleen Bell, Jan Bachmann and Caroline Holmqvist’s forthcoming collection, The New Interventionism: perspectives on war-police assemblages).

Kahn is, I think, much more troubled by this than Issacharoff and Pildes.  He concludes (like Chamayou):

‘Political violence is no longer between states with roughly symmetrical capacities to injure each other; violence no longer occurs on a battlefield between masses of uniformed combatants; and those involved no longer seem morally innocent. The drone is both a symbol and a part of the dynamic destruction of what had been a stable imaginative structure. It captures all of these changes: the engagement occurs in a normalized time and space, the enemy is not a state, the target is not innocent, and there is no reciprocity of risk. We can call this situation ‘war’, but it is no longer clear exactly what that means.

‘The use of drones signals a zone of exception to law that cannot claim the sovereign warrant. It represents statecraft as the administration of death. Neither warfare nor law enforcement, this new form of violence is best thought of as the high-tech form of a regime of disappearance. States have always had reasons to eliminate those who pose a threat. In some cases, the victims doubtlessly got what they deserved. There has always been a fascination with these secret acts of state, but they do not figure in the publicly celebrated narrative of the state. Neither Clausewitz nor Kant, but Machiavelli is our guide in this new war on terror.’

He is thoroughly alarmed at the resuscitation of what he calls ‘the history of administrative death’, whereas Issacharoff and Pildes – ironically, given what I take to be their geopolitical sympathies –treat the institution and development of an ‘adjudicative apparatus’ within the US programme of targeted killings as a vindication of their execution (sic).

I want to set aside other contributions to the emerging discussion over the ‘individuation’ of warfare – like Gabriella Blum‘s depiction of an ‘individual-centred regime’ of military conduct, which pays close attention to its unstable movement between nationalism and cosmopolitanism – in order to raise some questions about the selectivity of ‘individuation’ as a techno-legal process.  I intend that term to connote three things.

Target phase

(1) First, and most obviously, Issacharoff and Pildes fasten on the technical procedures that have been developed to administer targeted killings – which include both the ‘disposition matrix’ [see here] and its derivatives and the more directly instrumental targeting cycle [the diagram above shows the ‘Target’ phase of the Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess cycle] , both of which admit legal opinions and formularies – that convert targeted killing into what Adi Ophir calls a quasi-juridical process.  This encoding works to contract the ethical horizon to the legal-juridical (see here for a critical commentary) while simultaneously diverting attention from the substantive practice – which, as I showed in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), is shot through with all sorts of limitations that confound the abstract calculations of the targeting cycle (see, for example, Gregory McNeal here, who turns ‘accountability’ into accountancy).

(2) Second, ‘individuation’ refers to the production of the individual as a technical artefact of targeting.  S/he is someone who is apprehended as a screen image and a network trace;  s/he may be named in the case of a ‘personality strike’ but this serves only as an identifier in a target file, and the victims of ‘signature strikes‘ are not accorded even this limited status.  Others who are killed in the course of the strike almost always remain unidentified by those responsible for their deaths – ‘collateral damage’ whose anonymity confirms on them no individuality but only a collective ascription.  (For more, see Thomas Gregory, ‘Potential lives, impossible deaths: Afghanistan, civilian casualties and the politics of intelligibility’, International Feminist Journal of Politics 14 (3) (2012) 327-47; and ‘Naming names’ here).

(3) Third, the adjudication of ‘individual responsibility’ bears directly on the production of the target but not, so it seems, on the producers of the target.  Lucy Suchmann captures this other side – ‘our’ side – in a forthcoming essay in Mediatropes (‘Situational awareness: deadly bioconvergence at the boundaries of bodies and machines’):

‘A corollary to the configuration of “their” bodies as targets to be killed is the specific way in which “our” bodies are incorporated into war fighting assemblages as operating agents, at the same time that the locus of agency becomes increasingly ambiguous and diffuse. These are twin forms of contemporary bioconvergence, as all bodies are locked together within a wider apparatus characterized by troubling lacunae and unruly contingencies.’

Caroline Holmqvist, sharpens the same point in ‘Undoing war: war ontologies and the materiality of drone warfare’, Millennium (1 May 2013) d.o.i. 10.1177/0305829813483350); so too, and more directly relevant to the operations of a techno-legal process,  does Joseph Pugliese‘s figure of drone crews as ’embodied prostheses of the law of war grafted on to their respective technologies’.

These various contributions identify a dispersion of responsibility across the network in which the drone crews are embedded and through which they are constituted.  The technical division of labour is also a social division of labour – so that no individual bears the burden of killing another individual – but the social division of labour is also a technical division of labour through which ‘agency’ is conferred upon what Pugliese calls its prostheses:

‘Articulated in this blurring of lines of accountability is a complex network of prostheticised and tele-techno mediated relations and relays that can no longer be clearly demarcated along lines of categorical divisibility: such is precisely the logic of the prosthetic. As the military now attempts to grapple with this prostheticised landscape of war, it inevitably turns to technocratic solutions to questions of accountability concerning lethal drone strikes that kill the wrong targets.’

If the mandated technical procedures (1 above) fail to execute a sanctioned target (2 above) and if this triggers an investigation, the typical military response is to assign responsibility to the improper performance of particular individuals (which protects the integrity of the process) and/or to technical malfunctions or inefficiencies in the network and its instruments (which prompts technical improvements).  What this does not do – is deliberately designed not to do – is to probe the structure of this ‘techno-legal economy of war at a distance’ (Pugliese’s phrase) that turns, as I’ve tried to suggest, on a highly particular sense of individuation.  Still less do these inquiries disclose the ways in which, to paraphrase Weizman, ‘drones legislate’ by admitting or enrolling into this techno-legal economy particular subjectivities and forcefully excluding others .

More to come.


Note: Here are the citations for Issacharoff and Pildes’ full argument(s); the first is excerpted from the second, which deals with ‘capture’ (detention) as well as killing:

Samuel Issacharoff and Richard Pildes, ‘Drones and the dilemma of modern warfare’, in Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg (eds) Drone wars: the transformation of armed conflict and the promise of law (Cambridge University Press, 2013); available here as NYU School of Law, Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Working Paper No. 13-34, June 2013

Samuel Ischaroff and Richard Pildes, ‘Targeted warfare: individuating enemy responsibility’, NYU School of Law, Public Law & Legal Theory Working Papers 343 (April 2013); available here.

Theory of the drone 3: Killing grounds

This is the third in a series of posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone, in which I provide a detailed summary of his argument, links to some of his key sources, and reflections drawn from my soon-to-be-completed The everywhere war (and I promise to return to it as soon as I’ve finished this marathon).

5: Pattern of life analysis

Chamayou begins with the so-called ‘Terror Tuesdays‘ when President Obama regularly approves the ‘kill list’ (or disposition matrix) that authorises ‘personality strikes’ against named individuals: ‘the drones take care of the rest’.


But Chamayou immediately acknowledges that most strikes are ‘signature strikes‘ against individuals whose names are unknown but for whom a ‘pattern of life analysis‘ has supposedly detected persistent anomalies in normal rhythms of activity, which are read as signs (‘signatures’) of imminent threat.  I’ve described this as a militarized rhthmanalysis, even a weaponized time-geography, in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and Chamayou also notes the conjunction of human geography and social analysis to produce a forensic mapping whose politico-epistemological status is far from secure.

The principal limitation – and the grave danger – lies in mistaking form for substance.  Image-streams are too imprecise and monotonic to allow for  fine-grained interpretation, Chamayou argues, and supplementing them by equally distant measures, like telephone contacts, often compounds the problem.  Hence Gareth Porter‘s objection, which both Chamayou and I fasten upon:

‘The phone numbers and call histories from those phones go into the database which is used to “map the networks.” But the link analysis methodology employed by intelligence analysis is incapable of qualitative distinctions among relationships depicted on their maps of links among “nodes.” It operates exclusively on quantitative data – in this case, the number of phone calls to or visits made to an existing JPEL target or to other numbers in touch with that target. The inevitable result is that more numbers of phones held by civilian noncombatants show up on the charts of insurgent networks. If the phone records show multiple links to numbers already on the “kill/capture” list, the individual is likely to be added to the list.’

This is exactly what happened in the Takhar attack in Afghanistan on 2 September 2010 that I’ve discussed elsewhere, relying on the fine investigative work of Kate Clark, and Chamayou draws attention to it too.   The general assumption, as Kate was told by one officer, seems to be that ‘”If we decide he’s a bad person, the people with him are also bad.”

Takhar For a better future.001

These necro-methodologies raise two questions that Chamayou doesn’t address here.

The first, as Porter notes, is that ‘guilt by association’ is ‘clearly at odds with the criteria used in [international] humanitarian law to distinguish between combatants and civilians.’  You can find a much more detailed assessment of the legality of signature strikes (and what he calls their ‘evidential adequacy’)  in Kevin Jon Heller‘s fine essay, ”One hell of a killing machine”: Signature strikes and international law’ [Journal of international criminal justice 11 (2013) 89-119; I discussed a pre-publication version here].

The geo-legal ramifications of these attacks reach far beyond the killing grounds.  Earlier this month in the High Court in London one man who lost five relatives in the air strike in Takhar (as you can see on the slide above, on an election convoy) challenged the legality of the alleged involvement of Britain’s Serious and Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) in drawing up the kill-list, the Joint Prioritized Effects List, used by the military to authorise the attack: more herehere and here. (It was the presence of names on the list that triggered the faulty network analysis).

The second is the imaginary conjured up by the very idea of a ‘pattern of life’ analysis.  I’ve written before about the way in which the screen on which the full-motion video feeds from the Predators and Reapers are displayed interpellates those who watch what is happening on the ground from thousands of miles away, and I’ve emphasised that this isn’t a purely optical affair:  that it is an embodied, techno-culturally mediated process that involves a series of structured dispositions to view the other as Other (and often dangerous Other).   But these dispositions also reside in what we might think of as a grammar of execution.  To see what I mean, here is Micah Zenko:

‘Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”’

Hence, of course, ‘Bugsplat’ [according to Rolling Stone, ‘the military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed’], and a host of other predatory terms (see also here) that distinguish between this mere (bare) life and what Judith Butler calls ‘a life that qualifies for recognition’.

state-violence-and-the-execution-of-lawBut the same result is achieved through the nominally neutral, technical-scientific vocabulary deployed in these strikes. Joseph Pugliese captures the grammar of execution with acute insight in another fine essay, ‘Prosthetics of law and the anomic violence of drones’, [Griffith Law Review 20 (4) (2011) 931-961; you can also find it in his excellent new book State violence and the execution of law]:

‘The term ‘heat signature’ works to reduce the targeted human body to an anonymous heat-emitting entity that merely radiates signs of life. This clinical process of reducing human subjects to purely biological categories of radiant life is further elaborated by the US military’s use of the term ‘pattern of life’…

‘The military term ‘pattern of life’ is inscribed with two intertwined systems of scientific conceptuality: algorithmic and biological. The human subject detected by drone’s surveillance cameras is, in the first scientific schema, transmuted algorithmically into a patterned sequence of numerals: the digital code of ones and zeros. Converted into digital data coded as a ‘pattern of life’, the targeted human subject is reduced to an anonymous simulacrum that flickers across the screen and that can effectively be liquidated into a ‘pattern of death’ with the swivel of a joystick. Viewed through the scientific gaze of clinical biology, ‘pattern of life’ connects the drone’s scanning technologies to the discourse of an instrumentalist science, its constitutive gaze of objectifying detachment and its production of exterminatory violence. Patterns of life are what are discovered and analysed in the Petri dish of the laboratory…

‘Analogically, the human subjects targeted as suspect yet anonymous ‘patterns of life’ by the drones become equivalent to forms of pathogenic life. The operators of the drones’ exterminatory attacks must, in effect, be seen to conduct a type of scientific ethnic cleansing of pathogenic ‘life forms’. In the words of one US military officer: “Our major role is to sanitize the battlefield.”’

Later modern war more generally works through relays of biological-medical metaphors – equally obviously in counterinsurgency, as I’ve described in “Seeing Red” and other essays (DOWNLOADS tab), where the collective enemy becomes a ‘cancer’ that can only be removed by a therapeutic ‘killing to make live’ (including ‘surgical strikes’) – and Colleen Bell has provided an illuminating series of reflections in ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’ [in Humanity 3 (2) (2012) 225-247] and ‘War and the allegory of medical intervention’ [International Political Sociology 6 (3) (2012) 325-8].

This immunitary logic is clearly bio-political, and its speech-acts just as plainly performative, and Pugliese draws the vital conclusion:

‘As mere patterns of pathogenic life, these targeted human subjects effectively are reduced to what Giorgio Agamben would term ‘a kind of absolute biopolitical substance’ that can killed with no concern about the possibility of juridical accountability: they are ‘bare life’ that can be killed with absolute impunity. Anonymous ‘patterns of life’ signify in contradistinction to legally named persons; they exemplify the ‘ontological hygiene’ legislated by US government policy in order to secure the reproduction of the ‘principle of scarcity with respect to agency and personhood’.

‘Situated in this Agambenian context of the extermination of human life with absolute impunity, the Predator drones must be seen as instantiating mobile ‘zones of exception’…’

Which artfully brings me to Chamayou’s next chapter…

6: Kill-box

Chamayou notes that the ‘war on terror’ loosed the dogs of war from their traditional boundaries in time and in space: at once ‘permanent war’ and, as he notes, ‘everywhere war’.

But for Chamayou it is more accurate to speak of the world turned into a ‘hunting ground’ rather than a battlefield, and this matters because two different geographies (his term) are involved.  War is defined by combat, he explains, hunting by pursuit.  Combat happens where opposing forces engage, but hunting tracks the prey, so that the place of military violence is no longer defined by a delimited space (‘the battlefield’) but by the presence of the enemy-prey who carries with him, as it were, his own mobile halo of a zone of personal hostilities.

To escape, the quarry must make itself undetectable or inaccessible – and the ability to do so depends not only on physical geography (terrain) but also on political and legal geography.  For this reason, Chamayou argues, the US has rendered contingent the sovereignty of Pakistan because it (for the most part unwillingly) provides sanctuary to those fleeing across the border from Afghanistan.  In such circumstances, what becomes crucial for the hunter is not the military occupation of territory but the ability to control trans-border spaces from a distance through the instantiation of what Eyal Weizman called the politics of verticality that has since captured the attention of Stuart Elden [“Secure the volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power”, Political Geography 34 (2013) 35-51], Steve Graham [“Vertical geopolitics: Baghdad and after”, Antipode 36 (1) (2004) 12-23] and others.  For this to work, as Weizman shows in the case of occupied Palestine, air power is indispensable.

Chamayou suggests that the US has refined this capacity – in effect, finely calibrated the time and space of the hunt – through the concept of the kill-box.  I’m not so sure about this; the lineage of the ‘kill-box’ goes back to the USAF’s ‘target boxes’ [target boxes around An Loc in Vietnam in 1972 are shown below] – and two or three specified ‘boxes’ or ‘Restricted Operating Zones‘ were used to define the Predato’s’  ‘hunting grounds’ over North and South Waziristan that were tacitly endorsed by the Pakistan state.

Target boxes around An Loc 1972

The concept of the ‘kill box’ was formalised as a joint operations doctrine in the 1990s as part of the established targeting cycle: what Henry Nash famously described in another context as ‘the bureaucratization of homicide’.  Nash worked for the USAF Air Targets Division in the 1950s and 60s, identifying targets in the USSR for nuclear attack by US Strategic Air Command, but I doubt that Chamayou would dissent from using either the verb or the noun to describe the contemporary, non-nuclear kill-chain.  (In a later post I’ll explain how this technical division of labour feeds in to what Chamayou castigates as a ‘setting aside’, a dispersal of responsibility, which functions to separate an action from its consequences: this is aggravated by the remote-split operations in which drones are embedded, and is central to Chamayou’s critique).  Here is how the relevant military manuals incorporated the development of the kill box into the targeting cycle in 2009 (ATO = Air Tasking Order):

Kill Box Development

You can find more on kill-boxes and their operationalisation here.

Kill Box TTP

Chamayou doesn’t track the development of the concept, but since then the ‘kill-box’ has been supplanted or at least supplemented by the ‘Joint Fires Area’ as a way of continuing to co-ordinate the deployment of lethal force and allowing targets to be engaged without additional communication.  Within the grid of the JFA (shown below, taken from an essay by Major James Mullin on ‘redefining the kill box’) permission to fire in specified cells is established in advance; areas are defined, targeting intervals stipulated, and the time-space cells can be opened and closed as operations proceed.

It is this capacity that Chamayou seizes upon: within the kill box targets can be engaged at will, so that the kill box, he writes, ‘is an autonomous zone of temporary killing’ (cf. the ‘free fire/specified fires zone’ in Vietnam: see my discussion of Fred Kaplan‘s recent essay, ‘The world as a free-fire zone‘).

3-D representation of Joint Fires Area using Global Area Reference System

Chamayou implies that the schema has been further refined in contemporary counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations: the fact that the kill-box and its successor allow for dynamic targeting across a series of scales is crucial, he says, because its improvisational, temporary nature permits targeting to be extended beyond a declared zone of conflict. The scale of the JFA telescopes down from the cell shown on the right of the figure below through the quadrant in the centre to the micro-scale ‘keypad’ (sic) on the right.

Global Area Reference System

This is more than a grid, though; the JFA is, in effect, a performative space that authorises, schedules and triggers lethal action.  Chamayou: ‘Temporary micro-cubes of lethal exception can be opened anywhere in the world, according to the contingencies of the moment, once an individual who qualifies as a legitimate target has been located.’  Thus, even as the target becomes ever more individuated – so precisely specified that air strikes no longer take the form of the area bombing of cities in World War II  or the carpet bombing of the rainforest of Vietnam – the hunting ground becomes, by virtue of the nature of the pursuit and the remote technology that activates the strike, global.

KAPLAN World as Free-Fire Zone

The system I’ve described here is one adopted by the US military, and how far its procedures are used by other agencies outside established conflict zones is unknown to me and doubtless to Chamayou too.  Are these micro-cells used to specify individual compounds or rooms, as Chamayou suggests in a thought-experiment?  For him, however, it’s the imperative logic that matters, and here Kaplan’s tag-line (above) can provide the key explanatory exhibit: ‘to kill a particular person anywhere on the planet.’   The doubled process of time-space calibration and individuation is what allows late modern war to become the everywhere (but, contra Kaplan,  not the anywhere, because specified) war.

On the one side, then, a principle of what Chamayou calls precision or specification:  ‘The zone of armed conflict, fragmented into micro-scale kill boxes, reduces itself in the ideal-typical case to the single body of the enemy-prey: the body as the field of battle.’  Yet on the other side, a principle of globalisation or homogenisation: ‘Because we can target our quarry with precision, the military and the CIA say in effect, we can strike them wherever we see fit, even outside a war zone.’

This paradoxical articulation has sparked fierce debates among legal scholars – Chamayou cites Kenneth Anderson, Michael Lewis, and Mary Ellen O’Connell – over whether the ‘zone of armed conflict’ should be geo-centred (as in the conventional battlefield) or target-centred (‘attached to the body of the enemy-prey’). Jurists are thus in the front line of the battle over the extension of the hunting ground, he writes, and ‘applied ontology’ is the ground on which they fight.  I’ll have more to say about this on my own account in a later post.